If you have lived in Italy for a while you can’t help but be aware of Emanuela Orlandi because every few years there’s a new angle on the story that becomes news. Three years ago the Vatican exhumed two tombs in the Teutonic Cemetery that were subsequently found to be empty, though this rare display of cooperation by Vatican officials was probably only because they already knew that nothing would be found.
This wasn’t the first search among the dead had been made in the hope of solving the mystery of Emanuela because in 2012 the tomb of the notorious mobster Renatino de Pedis was exhumed in the church of Sant’Apollinare. How a murderous villain like de Pedis came to be buried in such an august and holy place has never been explained by the Vatican but that search also revealed no new information. More recently the big news relating to the case was the October 2022 simultaneous release in 160 countries of this excellent and slightly chilling four part Netflix documentary series.
This Netflix series comes only a few months before the 40th anniversary of Emanuela’s disappearance on June 22 1983 and provides another opportunity for her indefatigable brother, Pietro Orlandi, to press the Vatican for answers which, with much justification, he is convinced they are hiding.
Since the release of the documentary, in another strange twist that may or may not be coincidence, the agent of the Italian domestic intelligence service (SISDE) who was involved in the initial investigation in 1983 died suddenly on November 2nd 2022 at the age of 63. Giulio Gangi had just made an appointment with a journalist from Corriere della Sera, Fabrizio Peronaci, to clarify some points regarding the case. The death of Giulio Gangi follows the revelation by Repubblica that the three top secret folders relating to the Orlandi case in the possession of the Italian intelligence services have now disappeared.
Even in western countries, well over a thousand children go missing every year and are never seen again; very few of them however capture the public’s attention and even fewer remain in the news decades later. But there has only ever been one missing child who was living with her family in the Vatican city at the time of her abduction, technically the smallest country on the planet with a population of just 800 people. Her father was employed as an office clerk in the Papal Household and the Orlandi family has a 100 year history of service to 7 different Popes.
Who kidnaps a tall 15 year old girl in the center of Rome? She was certainly older and bigger than most child kidnap victims and given the location it was unlikely to have been a random or spur-of the-moment crime. This is the reason the story never goes away and the connection to the Vatican has spawned many different theories over the years, all of which are covered in fascinating detail in this Netflix documentary.
These theories involve an amazing range of seemingly unrelated events that took place in the early 1980s, including the death of Roberto Calvi ('God's Banker') who was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London, the assassination attempt on John Paul II by Ali Agca and, unsurprisingly, there is a theory that the Italian Mafia, who some believe were laundering money through the Vatican, were supposedly enraged that the Polish Pope had spent it all funding the fledgeling Solidarity movement in his native country. Was it a coincidence that on the same day that Emanuela was abducted the Pope was making an historic visit to Poland?
There is of course a very simple and obvious theory that her closest friend at the time tearfully and emotionally attests to in the final episode. This theory being that Emanuela was the victim of sexual assault by a high ranking Vatican official and that the Vatican's reputation was more important than the life of one innocent child. Given the Catholic Church's sordid history of child sex abuse around the world and their endless cover-ups and denials as portrayed in fact-based films like the Academy Award winning Spotlight, this is an entirely plausible hypothesis.
As the documentary makes clear, whichever theory one finds to be the most likely for Emanuela's disappearance the trail always leads back to the Vatican and the wall of silence that has persisted for decades.
In conjunction with the Netflix documentary, after almost 40 years and three Popes, the Vatican City walls are once again plastered with the same photos of 15 year old Emanuela that her brother placed there in 1983. This time, underneath her photograph there is an accusatory question added by Pietro.
In 2013 Pietro met briefly with the new Pope Francis, whose incoming reputation as a reforming Pope gave Pietro grounds for hope. But his optimism was shattered when Francis spoke just four words to him "Emanuela is in heaven". Pietro was shocked by the look of absolute certainty on the Pope's face as he uttered that simple statement because no evidence of her death has ever been discovered.
"His words froze my blood" was Pietro's comment in the documentary and in the 9 years since that brief meeting with Pietro, Pope Francis has sometimes found himself uncomfortably confronted by photographs of Emanuela held aloft by her supporters among the otherwise adoring crowds that surround him on public occasions.